Monza, Italy, Sept 11, 2011 (AFP) - Defending drivers world champion Sebastian Vettel moved within sight of retaining his title with ease on Sunday when he drove to a comprehensive victory at a crash-hit and thrilling Italian Grand Prix.
As the 24-year-old German steered his Red Bull car clear of the field, his nearest title rival and team-mate Mark Webber, 35, crashed out - leaving the dazzling Vettel to open up a luxurious 112 points lead with six races remaining.
Briton Jenson Button finished second in the leading McLaren after a typically well judged drive.
Two-times champion and local hero Fernando Alonso fought to hang on for a rousing third place for Ferrari, to the delight of the tifosi who invaded the circuit at the finish to cheer their famous team's colours on the elevated podium.
Alonso is now second in the title race, albeit a massive 112 points behind, meaning Vettel is now likely to win his second title at the Japanese Grand Prix in early October providing he does not suffer any catastrophic setback in Singapore later this month.
Lewis Hamilton, frustrated by Michael Schumacher and ultimately frustrated also by Alonso in the closing laps, came home fourth, just a few metres behind Alonso.
Schumacher, a five-times winner at Monza, finished fifth for Mercedes thanks to another performance that stirred memories of his halcyon days as the supreme champion. Vettel's win was his eighth of the season and the 18th of his exceptional, if brief career, bringing him also his 31st podium finish in only his 75th race - a record that hoists him into the company of many of the sport's greatest.
He won his maiden F1 race three years ago in torrential rain at the same Monza circuit for the Toro Rosso team and, perhaps signalling his feelings about that memory and his progress, he was close to tears as he acknowledged the hordes below on the circuit.
"Well done Sebastian, you have won the Italian Grand Prix. Fantastic," said his team chief Red Bull on the team radio. "Yes! Yes! We did it," replied the driver. "Nobody can believe it. We did it! Thank you boys."
At the start Vettel was slow to accelerate away from his 10th pole this year and the 25th of his career - allowing both Hamilton and Alonso, from fourth place, to draw alongside in the roaring run to the first chicane.
There Alonso took command for Ferrari with great courage and aplomb ahead of Vettel with Hamilton third and, remarkably, Schumacher, who started eighth and swept through to fourth.
Behind this cluster of champions, the first chicane claimed its usual bunch of victims as Italian Vitantioni Liuzzi of Hispania ran off on the approach and on to the grass and, out of control, slid sideways into the Renault of Russian Vitaly Petrov who, in turn, smacked into the Mercedes of German Nico Rosberg.
This trio were eliminated and the safety car was sent out while the mechanical carnage was cleared.
The field remained unchanged with Alonso in front until the safety car came in at the start of lap four when a sleepy Hamilton was passed by the alert and in-form Schumacher, making light of his age.
One lap later, more drama erupted when Webber collided with Felipe Massa, his Red Bull losing the front wing which was stuck under his car.
Inevitably, Webber crashed out at Parabolica shortly after Vettel had taken the lead with a bold attack around the outside of Alonso at Curva di Lesmo.
As Vettel surged two seconds clear behind him there was a notable scrap between Hamilton and Schumacher.
In one episode, Hamilton passed Schumacher who responded and regained his place.
In another, as Hamilton - in the faster car - went by on the inside approach to Lesmo, Schumacher chopped across him and forced him briefly on to the grass.
In regaining total control, Hamilton decelerated and Button swept through to move into fourth. "I thought you were allowed only one move," said Hamilton on the McLaren team radio. "Yes," came the reply. "The FIA are aware of this."
Mercedes team chief Ross Brawn then announced on the radio: 'Just a reminder, Michael, please make sure you leave room for a car when you change direction."
After all this, Hamilton took fourth from Schumacher, at last, on lap 28 as order settled again, Vettel and Alonso, both having pitted controlling the leading positions with Button and Hamilton in pursuit. Alonso, struggling with traction, could not resist Button's speed on lap 36 and the 2009 champion moved into second place behind Vettel who pitted for a
second time on that lap.
And that was how it stayed for the closing stages when Hamilton pushed hard to close the gap to Alonso, but without final success.